By Bliss Bowen
There’s a jazzy beat to Pasadena musician and film composer Bobby Johnston’s new book, “The Saint I Ain’t: Stories from Sycamore Street.” Understand, these are not traditional short stories; they are structured with line breaks like poems, linked and inspired by his “high-impact” childhood.
“the south side of sycamore street was inhabited
by a handful of drowning families
that were flailing in quicksand.
one of those families was mine…”
—from “Sycamore Street”
Writing in compact bursts of eloquence from the perspective of his young adult self, Johnston purposely avoids identifying the town he describes in “The Island” as “a small catholic valley/ surrounded by a thick forest of mountains.”
Nor does he name the “sinister, brown, fast moving” river snaking ’round the town, though both will likely feel familiar to readers who grew up between the Atlantic shoreline and states in Rust Belt decline. That’s where Johnston lived, poor, in a family of five kids that included a brother who turned him on to bands he wouldn’t have heard otherwise and parents who couldn’t afford medical bills. Playing piano — and hooky, often with matches or mushrooms — became his escape.
“Our town was a town where a lot of people could choose to go from high school to college or go into a factory and get a job,” Johnston recalled. “It was the days where a factory person still existed; you could retire and get the gold watch, and you felt proud of the place you worked for and felt part of something. A lot of those corporations moved operations overseas or out of state.”
He performed TV show themes in the living room — his “debut concert” — while his father’s friends drank and played cards in the kitchen, mordantly recounted in “Me and Mr. T.” Echoing a rosary cadence, “Elegy for Me” could be a lyric sung by a trauma survivor, while Springsteen echoes through characters such as Father O’Reverend, Harmonica Joe, the dreaded Sister Gosilano (“an infinitely obese,/growling, dictator of a nun/ whose name sounded closer to/ godzilla than it did to god”), and Johnston’s hard-nosed father (“in our house, my father was the law/ and i was the criminal”).
“It’s one person’s perspective. But that’s who we were,” Johnston said, readily admitting he was “a tough kid” who inherited his storytelling talents from the father he now feels “nurtured” by. His litany of broken bones, bloody mishaps and humiliations at the hands of school bullies, among others, illuminates the character of a town and leaders that fractured Johnston’s worldview.
All the stories in “The Saint I Ain’t” are “based on real experiences,” but in fiction’s tradition of masking the innocent and guilty, the book’s Billy Flynn is a composite of several real-life buddies. “The Island” recounts how one of them “found his exit/ on the banks of the river” with his father’s .357 Magnum.
“That was a best friend,” Johnston said, confirming the story’s autobiographical roots.
“We were pallbearers at 16 years old. When you’re Catholic, it’s an open casket funeral, and he had shot himself in the head. It was a very visceral, graphic experience for 16-year-olds. We all went through Catholic school and high school and stayed friends … a couple of us felt like it would have been us if it wasn’t him. You can tell from the stories that I was close to that end myself, and [it gave me] an impetus to just get out of there and define my own potential and my own future.”
A stint in the Air Force offered one way to see the world; after being stationed in Vegas, Johnston moved to the Pasadena area in 1990. For a while, he says, he road-dogged 30 weeks a year, playing clubs; for eight years he worked as a kindergarten associate teacher in Pasadena while making music at night. He’s been scoring films for two decades — mostly independent releases (“Wristcutters: A Love Story”) and documentaries such as Laura Gabbert’s widely praised “City of Gold” (about late LA food critic Jonathan Gold). Johnston relies on his multi-instrumental skills in the studio, though he strives for minimalism as a composer and writer.
“I can be more expressive and creative, musically and with writing, if I have some parameters,” he explained. “I purposely structured (the book) like poetry for that reason — to try to do as much as possible with as little as possible. A lot of the form of it is almost as if this character came across an abandoned typewriter and just threw his story out there. I wanted it to be like a confession, almost, or a sort of witness.”
His decision to arrange stories on the page like lyric fragments allows him to impose a kind of order on past turmoil and reach for grace. He sat on them for years, when his characters still answered to their true names and “the trauma was too close.”
It was easy not to think about writing once his film-composing career gained momentum, but when “Wristcutters” director Goran Dukic encouraged him to publish his poems, Johnston suggested they write a screenplay based on them instead. They wrote a TV pilot too. Then COVID hit. He wrote five or six more stories and “pulled it together as a collection.”
He’s also made and scored videos for some pieces from the book and says he “wouldn’t mind filming a proper short for these.” He’s working on another set of stories even as he nervously wonders how his hometown will respond to “The Saint I Ain’t”; so far, feedback’s been good. That matters because, as cathartic as they are, he didn’t share his stories to point fingers or lament his past.
“You can’t really regret what made you who you are,” he said philosophically. “The stories make the cut if they have a poignant or humorous payoff. That’s the point — hopefully, they have some universal poignancy.”
To learn more, visit bobbyjohnstonauthor.com, bobbyjohnston.com and fomitepress.com.